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Battle of Laing's Nek

War: First Boer War

Date: 28th January 1881.

Place: In the northern tip of Natal near to the Transvaal Border, in South Africa.

Combatants: British against the Boers.

Generals: Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley and Commandant General P. J. Joubert.

Size of the armies: 1,200 British troops against 3,000 Boers.

Uniforms, arms and equipment:
The British infantry in South Africa at that date wore red jackets, blue trousers with red piping to the side, white pith helmets and pipe clayed equipment. The standard infantry weapon was the Martini Henry single shot breech loading rifle with a long sword bayonet. Gunners of the Royal Artillery wore blue jackets.

The Boers, being essentially a citizen militia, wore what they wished, jacket, trousers and slouch hat with a bandolier, and carried hunting rifles. The Boers were mainly mounted infantry, riding the ponies they used to tend their stock, many with a life times experience of marksmanship. They carried no bayonet leaving them at a substantial disadvantage in close combat, which they avoided so far as possible.

Winner: The Boers.

British Regiments:
Royal Artillery:
Royal Navy:
Mounted Infantry:
58th Regiment: later 2nd Battalion, the Northamptonshire Regiment and now the Royal Anglian Regiment.
3rd Battalion, 60th Rifles: now the Royal Green Jackets.
Laing’s Nek is not a British Battle Honour.

The British annexation of the Transvaal Republic in April 1877 brought about the First Boer War, although it took some years to break out. On 20th December 1880, Lieutenant Colonel Anstruther and elements of his regiment, the 94th, marched from Lydenburg to Pretoria, the regiment’s band leading the column playing the popular song “kiss me mother darling”. At Bronkhorst Spruit the force was stopped by Boers who courteously required the “Red Soldiers” to turn back. Armstrong equally courteously refused at which the column was devastated by rifle fire from the surrounding Boer ambush. Of the 259 in the column, 155 officers and men became casualties as did some of the women accompanying the regiment.

The British High Commissioner for South East Africa, Major General Sir George Pomeroy Colley, instead of waiting for the reinforcements that were on the outbreak of the war sent to Southern Africa, assembled what troops he could and rushed forward, claiming to be moving to relieve the British garrisons in the Transvaal.

Colley gathered his force at Newcastle in Natal, dispatched an ultimatum to the Boers and, on its rejection, advanced towards the Transvaal border. The first British camp on the march lay some 4 miles short of Laing’s Nek, a ridge that blocked the road, occupied by a Boer force.

On the morning of 28th January 1881 Colley moved out with his troops: 5 companies of the 58th Regiment, 5 companies of the 3rd Battalion, the 60th Rifles, a company of mounted infantry, a party of Royal Navy sailors and 4 guns of the Royal Artillery.

58th Regiment
Floreat Etona by Lady Butler
(Click here or on image to buy a Print)

Where the road climbed up to Laing’s Nek, hills occupied by Boer riflemen overlooked it from each side. Colley led his force forward and wheeled to face the Boer positions on his right flank, causing the British rear to be exposed to the Boers holding the hills on the left side of the road.

The battle began with a bombardment of the Boer’s left wing, inflicting slight casualties, and a charge by the British mounted troops up the hill, repelled with some loss. This failed assault was followed by an attack further to the left, delivered by the companies of the 58th Regiment led by Colonel Deane. The Boers, moving forward to shoot into the regiment’s flanks, opened a devastating fire on the red coated infantry as they climbed the open hillside. The 58th suffered considerable casualties, including Colonel Deane and most of the regiment’s officers, before finally abandoning the attack and retiring to the bottom of the hill.

British Officers at tiffin

The “Cease Fire” sounded, ending the battle. A truce was negotiated whereby the Boers permitted the British surgeons to attend the wounded on the hillside.

Casualties: British casualties were 198 of which 173 were from the 58th Regiment, including many of the battalion’s officers. Boer casualties were 41.

Laing's Nek : The end of the battle
Laing's Nek : The end of the battle

Follow-up: General Colley mustered his forces before moving forward for the disastrous battle at Majuba Hill.

Private Doogan of the Queen's Dragoon Guards
Private Doogan of the Queen's Dragoon Guards winning the VC at Laing's Nek

Regimental anecdotes and traditions: